Like it or not, Mark Shapiro has unwavering belief in Blue Jays vision

TORONTO — Inside Mark Shapiro’s office is a table filled with leadership books that have shaped the career of the Toronto Blue Jays president and CEO. Stacked neatly, they include “Grit” by Angela Duckworth, “Peak: How to Master Almost Anything” by Anders Ericsson, Sydney Finkelstein’s “Why Smart Executives Fail” and Paul Tough’s “How Children Succeed.”

On the wall is a giant whiteboard with a series of hand-written quotes. There’s a list of core values from The All Blacks, a successful New Zealand rugby team (a personal favourite is “No dickheads.”). There are also motivational quotes varying from Sun Tzu (“Every battle is won before it is fought.”) to Leonardo da Vinci (“Learning is the only thing the mind never exhausts, never fears and never regrets.”).

In 2017, Shapiro invited sports psychologist Dave Hatfield to spring training to speak with his coaching staff. During the discussion, Hatfield shared a quote from his father Barry, a sheep farmer and mayor of a town of 150 people in New Zealand: “You’ll be the same person in five years as you are now, except for the books you read and the people you meet. Always be a learner, son.”

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The quote is featured prominently on Shapiro’s whiteboard. It represents the values he is working to impart on the entire organization: a focus on continuous improvement, open-mindedness, collaboration and learning. Aside from books and inspirational quotes, Shapiro is also not afraid to use his resources in the sports world. He’s picked the brains of executives and coaches in other sports, including R.C. Buford, Scott Pioli and Nick Saban. Shapiro also watches other sports including Australian rules football and English Premier League soccer to extract learning points about building a successful franchise.

Mark Shapiro leans heavily on his guiding principles. (Kishan Mistry/Yahoo Sports Canada)
Mark Shapiro leans heavily on his guiding principles. (Kishan Mistry/Yahoo Sports Canada)

“I’m interested in thinking about what helps teams achieve greatness,” Shapiro told Yahoo Sports Canada during a sitdown in his office in July. “I’m a culture guy. I’m fascinated by what makes good teams great. I’m fascinated by what helps teams sustain levels of success.”

Born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Shapiro attended Princeton University where he was a pear-shaped, wide-body offensive tackle. He majored in history and wrote a thesis exploring Baltimore city housing and segregation along the Mason-Dixon Line. His father was a Harvard-educated civil rights and business lawyer and later a baseball player agent.

Now 52, Shapiro admits to having trouble finding time for any hobbies outside of working and spending time with his family. His kids are 14 and 16 now. Shapiro regularly watches his son play baseball and attends his daughter’s competitive dance recitals. Shapiro is proud of the fact he’s never played a single round of golf, but he does have hobbies. Bruce Springsteen songs have dotted the landscape of his life. He’s seen him perform in person about 50 times. A self-proclaimed old school hip-hop head whose favourite rapper is Eminem, Shapiro says he’s open to suggestions from his kids. On his Spotify you can find tracks from J. Cole and Wale.

After shedding his high school weight, Shapiro let himself go again once he started working full-time. After turning 40, he decided to work out on a daily basis. If there is one interest Shapiro would like to pursue, it’s fly fishing. He’s tried it several times. There’s something zen about it, he says, because you have to be present, and being present anywhere, but for his job and family, is hard for Shapiro.

Inside the Blue Jays organization, Shapiro is praised as a leader who empowers his employees and fosters an environment where everyone feels like their opinion matters. To the Blue Jays fanbase, he is viewed much differently, as someone overseeing a front office apathetic to their interests and far more invested in the bottom line than the product on the field. Whether it’s the emphasis he places on upgrading the team’s spring training facility or bringing more luxury boxes to Rogers Centre, Shapiro tends to strike some of the fans as a dispassionate businessman. Under Shapiro, the Blue Jays have been criticized for their risk aversion, which runs in stark contrast to their predecessors, who were willing to throw caution to the wind in service of immediate success.

It’s the first week of July and the Blue Jays are set to open a three-game series at home against the Baltimore Orioles. In a few days, the All-Star break will arrive. Vladimir Guerrero Jr. will hit 91 homers during the Home Run Derby and briefly make the fanbase forget about the team’s 34-57 record. In a few weeks, Toronto will end months of speculation by trading their best starting pitcher Marcus Stroman to the New York Mets for pitching prospects Anthony Kay and Simeon Woods Richardson. A few days later at the trade deadline, Aaron Sanchez, along with Joe Biagni and Cal Stevenson will be traded to the Houston Astros.

The roster has been turned over under Shapiro’s watch and the spotlight on the front office will only grow. Shapiro remains confident in where the organization is at and where it is headed and doesn’t feel the need to change people’s minds, even if he is aware a profile story can help change the perception of a public figure like himself.

“I’ve been disappointed too many times by people who get written by a journalist,” Shapiro says. “They just present one side to them. It would be easy for me to present you with this one side of me, but I choose not to do that. I am who I am and that’s either going to be something that resonates with you or not.”

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Mark Shapiro's public image has been under attack since he first arrived in Toronto in 2015. (Kishan Mistry/Yahoo Sports Canada)
Mark Shapiro's public image has been under attack since he first arrived in Toronto in 2015. (Kishan Mistry/Yahoo Sports Canada)

The majority of the Blue Jays fanbase has not resonated with Shapiro, whose tenure with the team started awkwardly when he replaced Paul Beeston towards the end of the 2015 season with the team on the verge of returning to the postseason for the first time since winning their second consecutive World Series in 1993. Shortly after the exhilaration of a playoff run that included a historic bat flip and a thrilling six-game ALCS series against the Kansas City Royals, the momentum was halted when general manager Alex Anthopoulos, who had pulled off a series of win-now moves at the trade deadline to bring the glory days back to the Rogers Centre and won the Executive Year of the Award, declined a contract extension from the team, choosing to leave for the Los Angeles Dodgers rather than working with Shapiro.

In a 2017 radio interview, Anthopoulos suggested he was leaving a work environment where people didn’t believe in him. It aligned with reports around the time of his departure that there was a disagreement in how the organization would be run between Shapiro and Anthopoulos.

“I was surprised,” Shapiro says. “I was proud of the culture we had in Cleveland. I was proud of the people that have come through that organization. I thought everyone would want to work in that environment. I genuinely thought I would learn from Alex and I hoped I would help him develop. Our perspective, our thoughts and our philosophies on how an organization is run, I was unaware they weren’t aligned. I don’t know what it was. You would have to ask him. But I think it was the experience the team was coming off of and he had the prerogative to not want to adjust, or change, or to work for a different person in a different environment.”

Anthopoulos’s departure set the narrative for Shapiro and general manager Ross Atkins as two American executives who had descended on the only franchise north of the border in Major League Baseball and pushed out a Canadian-born wunderkind who had made the franchise relevant again.

In Cleveland, Shapiro went from working in the player development department to eventually being named the team’s general manager, later becoming team president while overseeing the operations department as well. In Toronto, Shapiro identified areas he wanted to improve and upgrade, including processes and philosophies he wanted to instill across the organization.

“There was a lot of resources, tools, skill sets that were missing that needed to be modernized,” Shapiro says. “I felt like we needed to modernize leadership to compete in the modern sports landscape, or at least be an organization that I felt comfortable being a part of, which is not anecdotal decision making, more data-informed decision making. It was a combination of building out infrastructure on both the business and baseball side equally, adding people, and clarifying values, and aligning a culture behind those values.”

While the Blue Jays have taken steps backward on the field, Shapiro is upbeat about the organizational revamp that has happened under his watch. In 2016, Shapiro hired Andrew Miller from Cleveland to become the team’s executive vice president of business operations. Miller started as an intern with the Indians in 2006. In his first meeting with Shapiro at Winterhaven, Florida, the Indians executive told him that he wasn’t hired to grab coffee in the morning and buy lunch for the front office in the afternoon. “You’re here to help us win a World Series,” Shapiro told Miller, who was skeptical about the big speech he was being given. After a few months on the job, Miller was convinced.

“The people in the front office were genuine, authentic, caring and compassionate,” Miller says. “They wanted to win and they wanted to do it together. They wanted to empower people.” Under Shapiro, the Blue Jays have started to espouse those values as well. They’ve also started to incorporate analytics on the business side especially when it comes to understanding fans who come to the ballpark. Anuk Karunarante, vice president of strategy and analytics, now leads a department that is working to understand pricing and attendance models and uses a series of fan surveys to make specific decisions aimed at improving the experience at the ballpark. There’s a collaborative nature to the decision making which has led to changes like closing the Dome during the summer if there’s a heatwave, value menus at concession stands, and changing the start times of weekend home games based on fan feedback.

The Blue Jays are also proud of the progress they’ve made on the baseball side in terms of creating synergies in their scouting and analytics departments. The team has devoted additional resources in the last few years to evaluating the mental performance of players, rehabilitation and sports science with increased focus on sleep and hydration. Across the organization, new employees and those who have stayed with the Blue Jays through the latest regime change all rave about Shapiro’s leadership skills and how it has led to an open environment of idea exchange and group processes.

Internally, the front office is delighted with where the organization is at. “If something were to happen to me or for whatever reason [myself and Mark] weren’t here,” Atkins says, “I would feel like whoever is stepping into these roles would feel very good about the structure and the people that are in place and how well things are running and how cohesive the group is. And that’s all we can control. We can’t immediately impact wins and losses but we can control our values, our hiring, our systems, our process and our work, and I feel incredible about it.”

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Despite the results on the field, Ross Atkins is happy with the direction the team is heading. (Kishan Mistry/Yahoo Sports Canada)
Despite the results on the field, Ross Atkins is happy with the direction the team is heading. (Kishan Mistry/Yahoo Sports Canada)

How the fanbase feels about the Blue Jays is much different from the optimism being projected within the organization. Even with another ALCS appearance in 2016, the first full season under Shapiro’s watch, the Blue Jays have been mired in a strange spot of attempting to stay in the mix, but steadfastly refusing to commit to the aging veterans that got them there while not surrendering any meaningful prospect capital for more proven players to bolster their core. Of the stars who made the 2015 and 2016 runs possible, only Jose Bautista was re-signed to a one-year deal that didn’t work out for either party.

David Price was allowed to walk in free agency to sign with division rival Boston, albeit on a contract the Blue Jays in hindsight are probably glad they didn’t offer. Edwin Encarnacion was replaced with Kendrys Morales, who was half as expensive but far worse and has since been traded. Between the beginning of the 2018 season and Opening Day 2019, the Blue Jays jettisoned Josh Donaldson, J.A. Happ, Marco Estrada, Russell Martin and Troy Tulowitzki, underwhelming the fanbase with the return for several players, notably Donaldson. After the Stroman and Sanchez trades, first baseman Justin Smoak is the only active player remaining from the 2015-2016 runs.

“Even up to last year, I felt like for the price that we paid, in other words the prospects we gave up, and for the incredible support that was demonstrated in 2015 and 2016, as long as we had any objective chance to win, I wanted to keep going,” Shapiro says. “This is not intellectually what I would do if I was making a baseball decision. I just felt like we had to keep the window open as long as we could.”

Shapiro runs through a series of what-ifs. If Donaldson didn’t miss most of last season with an injury. If Stroman and Sanchez were both healthy and performed to expectations. If everything went the right way, Shapiro says the Blue Jays would have still been a playoff contender last season. Instead, things didn’t break right and Toronto was criticized for not extracting enough trade value out of Happ and Donaldson, who was traded to Cleveland in August for a player to be named later who turned out to be Julian Merryweather, a 26-year-old minor-league pitcher coming off Tommy John surgery.

The team’s decision to trade Stroman this past weekend rather than offer him an extension and make him a part of the core moving forward upset parts of the fanbase, who saw the team part ways with their best pitcher and a player who repeatedly expressed his desire to remain with the team. Trading Stroman put a microscope on Shapiro’s bet on building a culture and who the Blue Jays want as the right people on the roster, which was confirmed by a comment from a Blue Jays official after the trade on the pitcher’s leadership role in the clubhouse

Toronto has moved on from bigger personalities like Stroman, Bautista and Donaldson, choosing rather to have a clubhouse led by Guerrero Jr., Cavan Biggio and Bo Bichette, young players who have come up in the Blue Jays minor league system under Shapiro’s watch.

When talking about his young players, Shapiro raves about catcher Danny Jansen, despite the fact he’s only batting .203 with a .622 OPS on the season. It provides an insight into the kind of characteristics he wants to identify and instill on the 25-man roster. “He’s such a high character guy,” Shapiro says. “He hasn’t gotten down. He’s stayed committed to developing our pitchers. You want guys you can pull for. It’s miserable if you’re not working with good people. If you’re just selling out for talent, and they’re not good guys, these jobs suck.”

The talent versus culture debate is a dilemma Shapiro remembers facing very early on in his tenure as general manager of the Indians. In 2003, Cleveland was coming off its first losing season in over a decade and headed towards a rebuild. Outfielder Milton Bradley, the most talented player on the roster at the time, was removed from a spring training game after failing to run out a pop fly.

Shapiro decided he needed to trade Bradley right away, but was met with resistance from different parts of the organization. Larry Dolan, owner of the team, told Shapiro the team needed to win, despite issues with Bradley’s character. Chris Antonetti, now the president of the Indians, remembers conferring with Shapiro and reminding him that he would be trading a five-win player, setting the rebuild back. Even their manager Eric Wedge said he would be willing to make it work with Bradley if he returned to the team.

“My career was in its infancy,” Shapiro says. “I’m 36 years old and I was like ‘holy shit.’ That was a lonely moment.” Despite the back and forth with different members of the organization, Shapiro went ahead and traded Bradley to the Los Angeles Dodgers. “We had identified what we wanted to represent as an organization and not just what we wanted to accomplish on the field but the way we sought to go about it,” Antonetti says. “We were either going to put our money where our mouth was or look the other way and compromise. It was a pivotal moment for us. It crystallized not only what we sought to accomplish but how we wanted to do it.”

When the Indians returned to the postseason in 2007 and defeated the New York Yankees in the ALDS, Shapiro remembers celebrating in the clubhouse, looking at everyone in the organization from scouts to strength coaches to the 25 players and feeling a sense of vindication for the direction he decided to take with the team.

Shapiro is looking to steer the Blue Jays towards a similar path and truly believes the intangibles he is trying to instill across the organization and in the clubhouse will be the difference in getting the franchise back to the postseason and on a sustainable path of winning.

“You can assemble talent, and if you have enough talent, none of [the other stuff] matters,” Shapiro says. “But to compete in the AL East, where you have to overcome market challenges, something’s gotta be special. You need a group of players who care more, work harder and are tougher. All of those things. In my experience, to find a group of guys who care more, work harder, are tougher, believe in each other more and want to win more, that’s attainable. It takes time.”

Over the next few years, the Blue Jays will need to supplement their core group of potential young stars by acquiring additional talent via trade and free agency. Shapiro insists when the timing is right, Toronto will be a competitive bidder in the free agent market.

“We should have the flexibility to enter into whatever decisions we want to make, whether it is a trade, a free agent, or an international player,” Shapiro says. “But it’s still got to fit. But yes, if the right guy is available at the right time, we’ll pay the price. If all the things align, age, talent, makeup, character and personality, I would expect us to be all in.”

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Mark Shapiro isn't too concerned with his public perception. (Kishan Mistry/Yahoo Sports Canada)
Mark Shapiro isn't too concerned with his public perception. (Kishan Mistry/Yahoo Sports Canada)

Shapiro received death threats in Cleveland when he traded ace pitcher Bartolo Colon to the Montreal Expos, so the lukewarm welcome he received when he arrived in Toronto wasn’t a surprise. “I expected it from the fans,” Shapiro says. “But some of the personal media attacks, being called a carpetbagger, some of the stuff I was like ‘whoa, this is like hatred, this is like vitriol.’ That was shocking more than anything.”

Leaders inside the organization and executives around the league who have worked with Shapiro all expressed their surprise and disappointment at how Shapiro’s public image was shaped when he joined the Blue Jays. There are anecdotes and stories which could help change that image.

For example, when Shapiro first arrived in Toronto, he was taken aback by the number of people all around the city who wore Blue Jays merch. It wasn’t just people coming to the stadium, he noticed them everywhere. After a home game, Marnie Starkman, the team’s vice president of marketing, encouraged Shapiro to hop on the subway and just keep going until he didn’t see a single Blue Jays hat on the train. It was a long subway ride.

Watching the 2015-2016 playoff runs up close gave Shapiro a view into what this market can be with a winning product. He has also fallen in love with the city. “My family and I were so excited to come to Toronto and we still feel that way today,” Shapiro says. “I wasn’t out of a job. It was a conscious decision to leave some place after 24 years because of how incredible this place is. Living here has been an affirmation of everything I thought it would be. The diversity, the open mindedness, the compassion, the progressiveness. It’s consistent with my values and my sensitivities outside of sports.”

These words could help forge a connection with the fans and help Shapiro win the popular vote, but he is not interested. On his whiteboard there are also quotes about leadership qualities, and one of them is being an effective communicator, which Shapiro believes involves picking and choosing your battles.

“Prioritization is important,” Shapiro says. “There’s never enough time. Time is our issue. I’m a leverage guy. I’ve got five things I can deal with today, what’s the highest leverage thing I can deal with? You have to go to sleep knowing I didn’t deal with 95 things, but I dealt with the five things that’s most important to our success moving forward.

“I don’t care about being liked. That’s just not something I spend energy on. I care about being respected by the people in my life. I care about the people that work here, that they love working here, that they love their jobs and know that they’re important and know that they’re fulfilled, happy and content. Ultimately, I want to win for the fans. I want them all to celebrate and be happy.”

Atkins has also taken a lot of criticism for his lack of transparency in communicating certain issues with the media, and admits he has reviewed his own interactions with media members and often seeks out feedback on how he can improve. “Do I care? Yes, I’m human,” Atkins says. “There are times I look inward and wonder what I can do differently and get better. And when I try hard to do it and I don’t see results and I don’t see trends in a positive direction, that’s frustrating. Does that mean I’m frustrated? No. I just continue to try.”

The narrative of Toronto’s front office won’t change until the team is winning again, and even though there’s no timeline on when that will happen, patience is already running thin with the fanbase. Four years into his tenure with the Blue Jays, and under plenty of pressure to turn the team around, Shapiro is proud of the organizational vision he has laid out and believes it will lead to a winning product on the field, even though few people following the team would agree.

“It’s a long game in a short-term world and that ain’t easy,” Shapiro says. “I still feel like we’re going to get to a point where fans will appreciate it. More importantly, when we get to that point, we will be sustainable. It’s going to be built on something real. It’s going to be built on a set of values, a process, a way of doing things and a set of beliefs that align people together.”

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